What’s the @ sign called?

Does the symbol @ have a name?  In English, it’s just the boring “at sign,” with an origin in commerce and bookkeeping. However, other languages around the world use much more colorful names to refer to @. Little linguistic details can have big consequences. That’s why translation for marketing and advertising campaigns should always be done in-country, by linguists who know the quirks of their local language.

A virtual zoo

Some of the names are quite descriptive. In Israel, @ is called a strudel. The Dutch call it apestaart, which means monkey’s tail. Italians call it chiocciola or snail.

In Czech, the word is zavinac, a snack of rolled pickled herrings; in Russian, sabachka, or puppy. Uzbeks call it a puppy too: kuchukcha. The Finnish refer to it as a miuku-mauku or miumau, which is the sound that Finnish cats make. Hungarians call it kukac, a little worm (the kind you might find crawling out of an apple). The Swedes call it snabel-a — snabel is an elephant’s trunk. Literal translation: “a, with a trunk.”

Czech zavinac

How does Google Translate handle @?

Does the globalization of tech language threaten quirky @-terms with extinction? I reached out to our network of international partners and confirmed that many of these are still in use. Also, since Google Translate has improved, I wondered whether these idioms had survived machine translation. To test, I retrieved translation audio-recordings of the phrase in multiple languages. I expected to hear the English word “at,” if only because I was entering a symbol into a text box. But, to my surprise, the computerized voices used some of the international terms in the translated results of “jen@gmail.com” (not a real address).

In Polish, the symbol is called “monkey,” so the literal translation of a person reading out the email address is “jen monkey gmail dot com” — in Czech, “jen zavinac gmail dot com” and in Hungarian, “jen worm gmail dot com.” Swedish and Russian kept the whimsical names also. Sadly, the Finnish audio only returned the English “at,” as did the Dutch and Hebrew. People in these countries may still use the colorful terms in everyday speech, but this linguistic diversity is hidden from Google users. However, I suspect the @ will conjure a virtual linguistic zoo for years to come.

From our perspective in language services, only human translators can capture these subtleties of local speech. Scriptis works with in-country teams of culturally aware linguists when providing our clients with translation for marketing.

The origin of @ for email addresses

How did the @ sign become a universal email signifier? According to Smithsonian magazine, Ray Tomlinson, a computer scientist at BBN Technologies, first used it in 1970. Tomlinson was working on the Arpanet, the government-funded forerunner to the modern Internet. To send messages from one computer user to another, he figured an “address” required the name of the user and the name of the computer. He needed a connecting a symbol that programmers rarely used. @ happened almost by chance:

Tomlinson’s eyes fell on @, poised above “P” on his Model 33 teletype. “I was mostly looking for a symbol that wasn’t used much,” he told Smithsonian. “And there weren’t a lot of options—an exclamation point or a comma. I could have used an equal sign, but that wouldn’t have made much sense.” Tomlinson chose @, “probably saving it from going the way of the ‘cent’ sign on computer keyboards,” he says.

Unfortunately, Tomlinson didn’t save his historic first email, so we don’t have a “Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you”-type phrase to remember. I suspect the first e-mail message was “test.” Nevertheless, it’s funny that this little squiggle was once in danger of being lost. Now @ is one of the most commonly used symbols in the world.